Washington, DC — Less than one in seven at-risk American communities is “adequately prepared for a tsunami,” according to federal estimates obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Yet the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration is proposing to end its support for state and local tsunami readiness despite admitting that this move will significantly reduce the number of communities which will be ready to quickly evacuate and take other steps to minimize tsunami impacts.
During the past decade, tsunamis have killed more people than almost every other natural hazard. Since 1900, more than 100 tsunamis have hit Pacific U.S. states and territories, killing nearly 400 people.
NOAA documents produced under the Freedom of Information Act state that it counts 767 “tsunami at-risk communities in the U.S” with California having the most (158), followed by Maine (105), Alaska (75), Washington (52) and Oregon (50). However, NOAA currently classifies only 100 communities as “TsunamiReady,” a status denoting sufficient measures in place, such as evacuation plans, emergency operations support, sirens, signage, etc., to mitigate tsunami losses. At the present rate of NOAA funding, eight more communities each year are expected to become TsunamiReady.
Buried within its FY 2013 budget submission to Congress, the agency proposes a cut that “terminates NOAA partnership funding for education and awareness programs to the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program (NTHMP).” NOAA further estimates that this $4 million reduction will slash the growth rate in TsunamiReady communities by more than half, meaning that by 2017 an estimated 25 fewer communities will be tsunami ready than if NOAA continued the program.
“We have only made a dent in preparing our at-risk communities for minimizing tsunami impacts. Instead of doing more, NOAA is retreating,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “This makes as much sense as eliminating school fire drills to reduce overhead.”
The 2011 white paper by the Western States Seismic Policy Council, an earthquake consortium funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey, found that “tsunami mitigation and preparedness require maintaining partnerships and funding… through NTHMP.” The Council elaborated on the value of these state and local programs:
“Federal Tsunami Warning Centers cannot provide timely tsunami alert messages to communities located nearby subduction zones, like Cascadia and the Aleutians….This was demonstrated by the September 28, 2009 tsunami which devastated low-lying coastal areas of American Samoa…. Although 34 people were killed, if it were not for tsunami education efforts…the casualties from this tsunami would have been more than ten times more. Support by the NTHMP and other agencies saved countless lives during this and other recent events.”
“This small investment in local tsunami readiness saves lives and is one of the most cost effective things NOAA does,” added Ruch, noting that the overall NOAA budget is slated to increase by more than $150 million under the President’s FY 2013 plan. “NOAA says that it will take over public tsunami education but that is a function for which the federal government is especially unsuited.”
While both houses of Congress have balked at the proposed elimination of NTHMP as well as NOAA’s plan to cut back on tsunami monitoring buoys, the agency’s budget has been thrown into chaos by previously unreported fiscal shortfalls in the National Weather Service. NOAA is now threatening to furlough employees if Congress does not immediately approve the re-programming of millions of dollars. As a result, the ultimate mix of NOAA funding for the coming year remains murky.